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The Journey: Woodspell Apothecary

Posted by Sara McKean on

Allowing her curiosity to lead her down a path in which she reconnected to her wild self - the self that had been lost while working as a 3D animator/graphic designer - Val Alcorn discovered her sacred bond with plants, their healing power, and the wisdom so deeply held by communing with nature and reclaiming the wild within. Connecting to our ancestral medicine - bitters - Val brings into being the magic of Mother Earth. And does so with an abundance of integrity. Sharing her lessons learned, the beauty of bitters, and how curiosity is the key to remembrance + discovery, herbalist + founder of Woodspell Apothecary, Val, invites us into her journey. And what a beautiful journey it is. 

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What inspired you to bring Woodspell Apothecary into being?

The journey to Woodspell was actually a long and winding path. Looking back, I don’t think I really intended to start this business. It feels more like it started itself. I originally was a 3D Animator/Graphic Designer but quickly became disillusioned with the surface level feel of the industry. I was also struggling with some pretty debilitating digestive issues that no “conventional” doctor could fix.

It wasn’t until I visited a naturopath that I discovered the true healing power of plants. I’ve always loved the earth and had a deep connection to it, but I never had any guidance on how to commune with it for healing and meaning. Slowly my digestive issues dissipated and I began to feel like myself again - rather the person I was BEFORE I got into marketing and design: my wild self.

The plants helped me rediscover who I was at my core. They stoked my curiosity, my imagination, my inspiration. I wanted to share not only the digestive medicine that helped heal me with the world, but also medicine that enchants and inspires people to find their own wildness. I truly believe we are all born wild, but we so often lose it along the way when trying to make our way in the world, which is totally understandable. Through Woodspell, my hope was, and still is, to offer plant tonics for both healing and connection to folks also searching for a wilder way of living.

Your bitters tonics are phenomenal. What are bitters and why are they so integral in our lives today?

Thank you so much! The quick and simple answer is that bitters are an extract of herbs with bitter compounds to stimulate sluggish digestion. The result of this stimulation helps to reduce gas, bloating, indigestion, and heartburn while also toning the gut over time. As soon as the bitter taste receptors on our tongue interact with bitter compounds, they immediately send signals to the gut to get moving.

The deeper answer is that bitters are our oldest ancestral medicine. Millenia ago when plants first began covering the earth, all plants were extremely bitter (and many times poisonous to humans). Over time though, humans and plants co-evolved in a beautiful way that allowed us to eat plants without the poisonous effects. These bitter plants and compounds that are still found today are remnants of our first medicines and ancestors. They’ve been made into foods and tonics on every continent from ancient Egypt, to France, Brazil and beyond. In fact I’ve read old Polish herbals that stated that bitters were a key staple in the home apothecary.

They affect the solar plexus which governs our motivation, willpower, and purpose. This solidifies their place as a core grounding medicine to body and mind.

Even though bitters are ancient medicine, they are relevant in our modern day lives now more than ever. The bitter flavor has been mostly eradicated from our diets and replaced with sweet, savory, and salty. Without the presence of these bitter foods and medicines to keep our gut firing on all cylinders, our gut slows to a lazy roll. The result is all of the digestive issues and intolerances we see today.

Not only that, but science has proven that there is a strong link between our gut and our mind (known as the gut-brain axis). We actually have many neurotransmitters hanging out in our gut! This means that if our gut is off balance, our mind can fall out of balance too. This can cause all sorts of mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, and low energy. These issues again are common things we have witnessed or experienced in our modern lives.

While bitters aren’t a cure-all and require a lifestyle that supports them, reintroducing bitters into our wellness routine can many times be the missing link to help us to not just get by, but thrive. They can help reconnect us to how our bodies are meant to function and are an integral part of healing many digestive issues. Even if you don’t have any chronic digestive complaints, bitters still help our body stay in tip top shape as they keep everything flowing smoothly through the gut. This in turn helps detoxify the liver and skin, increase overall energy and mood, and helps reduce systemic inflammation.

What’s the most beneficial way to incorporate bitters into our day-to-day?

The best way to reap the benefits of bitters is to take the recommended amount about 15 minutes before a meal to prime the gut for the incoming food. These can be taken up to three times a day. The caveat is that the bitter flavor must be tasted for the medicine to work (remember the bitter taste receptors must be activated) so taking them in a highly flavored drink won’t do. The best way to take them is either straight from the dropper or in a bit of water.

If you’ve overindulged a bit in either food or alcohol, you can also take bitters when you are experiencing digestive upset. This again helps the gut to detoxify and digest quicker to relieve lingering symptoms.

As someone who takes bitters regularly, I understand the struggle of coping with the bitter flavor since it is so foreign to us nowadays. This is why I formulate all of my bitters blends not just for medicinal effectiveness but also for flavor. Over time, many people find that their bodies begin to actually crave these bitter flavors. Our bodies know what they’ve been missing.

Most of the herbs in your blends come from your own biodynamic gardens. Could you please share more about biodynamics and how your sourcing impacts the vitality + potency of your creations?

Yes! Biodynamics is a practice that revolves around tending to the garden in accordance with the phases and cycles of the moon, planets, and stars. Each task such as planting, weeding, fertilizing, and harvesting are all aligned to our most ideal cosmic position in the universe. This way of looking at the garden in a much more holistic way not only helps to remind me of my own place in the universe but also increases the storage life and vitality of harvested plants while helping fortify plants against pests and diseases.

There are also nine biodynamic preparations concocted over the course of the year to help boost certain energetics in the garden. These usually are made into the form of sprays that are applied to plants or soil. These preparations are key to nourishing the cosmic connection between the garden and the universe.

There is a whole lot of science behind these practices. I’ve also experimented myself and have found that the plants are always hardier and more resilient when I plant by the biodynamic calendar. But more than the science, it is another form of connection for me. Agriculture was the first application of astrology thousands of years ago. Nearly every culture grew crops to the cycles of the moon and stars. They knew something modern day agriculture doesn’t. So when we grow our crops in the same way, not only are we connecting to the garden and universe in a deeper way, but we are also connecting to our ancestors.

Some of the plants in your offerings are wildcrafted, and you approach the process with such intention + integrity. Could you please share what you do to ensure you are wildcrafting with reciprocity and reverence?

I grow as many plants as I possibly can at Woodspell, though I do wildcraft some plants when needed. I mainly harvest from trees and groundcovers which are prolific and can be harvested without any negative effects. I only harvest plants that are abundant in my area and cannot be reasonably grown in my own gardens.

I also believe that true wildcrafting is a practice of regeneration. If done correctly, you can actually increase a population of plants rather than deplete it. This can be done by replanting seeds, trimming back bushes, thinning out crowded stands, harvesting invasive plants for medicine, etc. The book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer has had a huge influence on me in this regard. She and a student discovered that stands of native sweetgrass were declining because they WEREN’T getting harvested. Aside from the scientific reasons for this, the plants want to commune with us. I’ve felt the call especially this summer. The plants want us to remember. They want us to spread that knowledge.

An important part of this as well is paying my own reparations to the local tribes. I live on Ojibwe land and feel very strongly obligated to pay my dues for sharing the medicine of this land. There is a wonderful organization of water protectors called MackinawOde who are at the front lines of fighting against the Line 5 pipeline through the Great Lakes. A portion of my proceeds always goes to them which help them to buy gas cards, supplies, and whatever else they need for their work.

You recently launched new packaging + new formulas. What inspired these changes and how have they elevated the overall experience of your creations?

I am SO excited about these reimagined formulations. While many of the bitters contain most of the same ingredients, I’ve found a way to lower the alcohol content of each blend substantially. My goal was to allow people to commune with the plants directly, i.e. take bitters straight from the dropper. I want them to experience the beautiful dance of bitter, sweet, savory, and sour that accompany it. I want them to have a moment of that wild connection that I mentioned earlier.

Unfortunately, the issue was that many bitter compounds are only extracted in high proof alcohol, which makes it very difficult to take straight. However, I’ve been experimenting with different levels of organic cane alcohol (making the blends gluten free) and organic vegetable glycerin. The result has been better than I could have hoped for. The alcohol isn’t overpowering and allows the herbs themselves to shine. All of the flavors and compounds that accompany the bitter help to support the experience and the effectiveness of them.

Have plants always been a part of your life?

Always! Though not in the same way as they are today. As a child I would play in the forests, climb apple trees, and disappear into the natural world as often as I could. I felt a natural pull to them, one that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. My family and I used to camp all the time and my dad is an avid outdoorsman which helped to nourish this relationship. However, I grew up (and now live in) the Midwest. There weren't a whole lot of opportunities for me to be exposed to the spiritual side of nature and so I wandered through life feeling this nagging pull that I couldn’t explain or satisfy.

It wasn’t until I moved out to Colorado that I discovered all of the ways I could experience plants on a deeper level. It felt like all of the pieces of my life finally fell into place. It was the answer to everything.

Which Woodspell offering is resonating deeply with you these days?

I am actually so stoked to start offering teas in my store! Now that I feel that I’ve perfected my bitters, I want to branch out into this ritual side of plant medicine. Plus I just love taking tea and bitters together. It’s a match made in heaven, so it was a natural avenue for me to take.

At the time of this writing I haven’t officially announced it yet, but I’m also working with an AMAZING indigenous ceramic artist who is creating some absolutely gorgeous medicine pots to house the teas. This adds an extra bit of connection and magic that I am so excited about. This will allow people to either buy the teas with the medicine pot or a refill on its own. (Editor's note: these are now live on Val's site and are so stunning! Created in collaboration with Singing Pots.)

I’ve also been working closely with my Whisperers Bitters lately. I discovered the ridiculously wild and amazing flavor of aspen this past year and knew it had to have its own blend. If you’ve ever chewed on a ripe aspen bud, an explosion of flavor will delight your senses. The most prominent flavor is bitter, which gives way to an incredible blend of vanilla and maple syrup if you can imagine. In the Whisperers blend, I accented it with angelica, elderflower, burdock, and bee balm to really let this wonderful plant shine.

Is there a plant ally that speaks to you through and through?

Chamomile! I know this sounds very basic and not exotic at all, but this plant has held me in so many ways. It’s always shown up when I need it the most. Plus the taste and aroma are just divine. It is such a versatile herb that can be enjoyed in so many ways whether it be in tea, bitters, cocktail, hydrosol, essence, or syrup. It has settled my distraught stomach and soothed my frazzled nerves more times than I can count.

Chamomile is also an ancestral medicine for me. Much of my family is from Poland where chamomile has been grown and made into medicine for generations. I feel such a strong pull to grow and work with it in this way. I’ve actually been blessed to be able to grow a Polish variety of chamomile called Zloty Lan in my gardens for the past three years and it is such a gift.

What’s one of the greatest lessons you’ve learned on your Woodspell journey thus far?

Wow, that is a hard one. It’s taught me so many things and made me the person I am today. Perhaps one of the biggest things though that both the plants and the business have taught me is to let my curiosity guide me. It is so easy to get caught up in the details, facts, and figures. So much so that sometimes you lose sight of your purpose or become too overwhelmed by it all.

The thing I had to learn was that the plants don’t care if you memorize every single latin name or constituent. They don’t require anything except curiosity. Because curiosity is the gateway to remembering and discovering. When we put aside the expectations we can allow ourselves to truly commune with the earth and the plants. We remember how to play, and play is one of the most important things any of us can do as adults.

I’ve learned that the greatest herbalists aren’t those with the most education or accolades, but those who are the most curious. They chew on bark, roots, and leaves to experience a plant’s medicine one on one. They make different preparations just for the heck of it, knowing full and well that it might not turn out. They ask the plants what to do. This approach of curiosity requires trust and patience, but the rewards are better than I could have imagined. I never want Woodspell to become a “job." I don’t want the magic to disappear. Leaning on curiosity is a fail safe to keep me inspired and moving forward both as an herbalist and business owner.

For someone wanting to start their own herb garden, what’s one piece of advice you’d offer?

You will kill a LOT of plants. And that’s ok! Many people who see a thriving garden just assume that the gardener has a “green thumb," like it’s some divine gift. But the truth is, unless you’ve been trained since a child, most of us have failed our way to where we are now. There are so many factors that go into a garden: seed starting methods, crop rotation, succession planting, watering, fertilizing, soil structure, nutrients and amendments, harvesting methods, pest and disease prevention and treatment, and a whole lot more. It’s a living breathing process that requires so much patience and attentiveness. Every successful garden has been a hard win for many people, one that has developed and improved over time.

Don’t give up. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to be an observer. Be an explorer of your own garden. Keep a garden journal and note all of the things that worked and didn’t work in your garden so that you can continue to improve in future seasons.

One thing about herb gardening is that the plants are usually much more forgiving than, say, vegetables. They can be harder to germinate from seed, but once established they will grace you with abundant harvests with little care. I always recommend starting with some of the most reliable and prolific herbs such as bee balm, yarrow, chamomile, lemon balm, thyme, etc. These plants are quite hardy and will give you a great start and a wide variety of medicine.

What self-care rituals do you infuse into your days?

Tea. Always tea. Aside from my digestive support system (probiotics, bitters, fermented foods, etc.) tea is something that feels luxurious and absolutely necessary to my self care. I’m a huge book nerd so every night I clean my space, light my candles, brew a cup of tea, and read a good book. It helps me to unplug and settle down for the night. I’m not the greatest at keeping routines, but this is one that has stuck with me and really helps to ground my mind and body.

I’ve also gotten big into skincare lately. I’m not a big makeup person, but as I near 30 I’ve been investing in my face and skin. I love the ritual of skincare. Now that I’m spending time cleansing, exfoliating, toning, applying serums, and moisturizing it feels like I am truly worshipping my skin. It feels incredible to celebrate my body in that way, because it truly is a temple and the walls deserve to be sparkly and shiny.

Could you please share a recipe using one of your incredible bitters tonics?

My favorite recipes are the simplest. They make the most sense for busy folks and are so rewarding when you take a bit of extra time to indulge. I’ve been obsessed with aloe lately, so here is a mocktail that is as delicious as it is medicinal.

 

INGREDIENTS

1 1/ 2 ounces sparkling water

3/ 4 ounce honey

3/ 4 ounce lime juice

1 ounce aloe juice

½ tsp Huntress Bitters

Cucumber

 

METHOD

STEP 1

In a shaker add sparkling water, honey, lime juice, aloe juice, bitters and desired slices of cucumber.

STEP 2

Muddle, add ice, and shake.

STEP 3

Fill glass full with crushed ice.

STEP 4

Double strain into glass.

STEP 5

Garnish with cucumber slices or peels.

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Photo courtesy of Woodspell Apothecary.

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